Origin and Ultimate Disposition of the Evil Inclination in Rabbinic Literature

The rabbinic literature, Talmud and Midrash, are not single books but a result of a creative process that took place over several centuries. The process of creating Talmud began in 100 CE and ended with its redaction in around 500 CE. The Talmud consists of sixty-three volumes of the discussions, debates and discourses in Babylonian and Palestinian rabbinic academies. Over the span of these four centuries, scribes took notes of the discussions, then organized the notes topically and edited them into the sixty-three volumes. In the Talmud text the rabbis discuss every imaginable life issue and concern, among them the inclination humans have to transgress God’s commandments. They called this inclination the yetzer hara, or evil inclination.

When we consider the beliefs, opinions, and attitudes of the rabbis in Talmud and Midrash we should always recognize that there is rarely a unified, systematic approach. Different rabbis in different times and texts will articulate different views and in some cases those views will conflict with each other. The characteristic diversity of views contained in rabbinic literature reflects the nature of Jewish life throughout history—a tolerance, even an embrace of diversity and complexity. This is the case with the evil inclination and the capacity for sin as much as any other articles of faith in rabbinic literature. In my discussion here of the rabbinic view of the evil inclination I will acknowledge areas of consensus, and will identify cases where only one belief is expressed and where there are multiple perspectives.

Humans have an incredible capacity for sinful behavior, for acting contrary to the wishes of God, and this capacity seems to be universal, persistent and durable. The rabbis of the ancient world¹ contend with this phenomenon and reach conclusions about the origin of the evil inclination at the beginning of life and its fate in the world to come.² Since they posit a God of goodness Who created the world and humans, they have to explain how such a phenomenon as human sinfulness can even exist. How can humans be so constituted that virtually all would at least consider sinful and ungodly behavior? The answer of the rabbis is that God created human beings with this capacity, that this common rejection of God’s commandments is, in fact, part of God’s creative plan and design for humans. The evil inclination is not a corruption of the human spirit or some result of deterioration of basic human goodness over time, but the way God created man.

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Author: Rabbi Michael Mayersohn

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Bible reference(s): Genesis 1:31, Genesis 8:21, Deuteronomy 10:16, Psalms 51:10, Proverbs 25:21, Isaiah 5:18, Isaiah 57:14, Ezekiel 36:26, Joel 2:20, Matthew 4:1-11, Matthew 6:13, Mark 1:13, Luke 11:4, Luke 4:2-13, John 8:44, Acts 5:3, Romans 7:17-24, 1 Corinthians 7:5, 2 Corinthians 12:7, 2 Corinthians 11:14, Galatians 1:4, Ephesians 4:27, Ephesians 6:11, Ephesians 6:16, 1 Thessalonians 3:5, 1 Timothy 3:6-7, 2 Timothy 2:26, Hebrews 2:14, James 4:7, 1 John 2:13-14, 1 John 3:8, 1 John 3:10, 1 John 3:12, 1 John 5:18-19

Source: Are We Sinners? (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2009), pp. . xiii-xiv, 19-28.

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